Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Lear, Opéra national de Paris, 29 May 2016

Palais Garnier

King Lear – Bo Skovhus
King of France – Gidon Saks
Duke of Albany – Andreas Scheibner
Duke of Cornwall – Michael Colvin
Earl of Kent – Kor-Jan Dusseljee
Earl of Gloucester – Lauri Vasar
Edgar – Andrew Watts
Edmund – Andreas Conrad
Goneril – Ricarda Merbeth
Regan – Erika Sunnegårdh
Cordelia – Annette Dasch
Fool – Ernst Alish
Servant – Nicolas Marie
Knight – Lucas Prisor

Calixto Bieito (director)
Rebecca Ringst (set designs)
Ingto Krügler (costumes)
Bettina Auer (dramaturgy)
Sarah Derendinger (video)
Franck Evin (lighting)

Chorus of the Opéra national de Paris (chorus master: Alessandro di Stefano)
Orchestra of the Opéra national de Paris
Fabio Luisi (conductor) 
Rehearsal photograph: © Élena Bauer / OnP

This year has seen musical Shakespeare commemorations aplenty, although I cannot help but wonder whether some miss the point. Although there are many wonderful musical settings of Shakespeare, his verse is often so musical in quality that it requires nothing additional. Successful Shakespeare operas are thus less surprisingly few than one might initially suspect. Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has its devotees, many of them fervent; I should rather stick with the play and Mendelssohn’s incidental music. Falstaff: well, it is difficult to care much one way or the other about The Merry Wives of Windsor, even if Nicolai’s version is (slightly) preferable. Lear, however, has at least one other excellent operatic version, very different in conception: Alexander Goehr’s Promised End. Aribert Reimann’s opera is more conventionally operatic, perhaps, than Goehr’s post-Brechtian response, although such a claim is highly relative and this is no work, thank God, for canary-fanciers. We are lucky to have both – and equally lucky never to have that threatened late Verdi opera. (I have never heard Aulis Sallinen’s 2000 opera.) At any rate, the Paris Opéra’s contribution, whether intended as such or no, is most welcome in principle, still more welcome in practice.

Claus H. Henneberg wrote a number of libretti, from Reimann’s 1971 Melusine to works by Peter Eötvös and Matthias Pintscher. (How I should love an opportunity to see the latter’s Thomas Chatterton!) This, first performed at the Munich Opera Festival in 1978, was written with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau very much in mind for the title role, and that seems to have helped the initial dissemination of the work, both in the theatre and on its first recording. For a number of stagings followed, including San Francisco, Paris (making Calixto Bieito’s staging the Opéra national de Paris’s second), East Berlin (the Komische Oper), Vienna, Amsterdam, and eventually in 1989, London (ENO). Opera of this period has not generally been well served well by our opera houses, although many continental houses – and not just German ones, as this Paris production and its predecessor attest – tend to do better than their English counterparts; nor has it been in much Anglophone writing. In the meantime, however, you are recommended to seek out a performance and/or a recording where you can.

This Paris production and performance will do nicely in that respect. Reimann’s post-expressionist score – not unlike what you might expect from so fine a pianist in Lieder of the Second Viennese School – and Henneberg’s libretto do nothing especially ‘to’ the play, although it is of course not remotely set in its entirety. Given the musical language, violence comes much to the fore, without forsaking claims upon our human sympathies. Indeed, as one would expect, the latter become progressively engaged as the second of the two acts progresses. Dramatic parallelisms and distinctions, for instance between Lear (baritone) and Gloucester (bass-baritone), Cordelia and Edgar, are surely, if sometimes rather obviously, handled in words and music. The series with which the latter pair are associated come strongly into the foreground, much as they might have done with Berg, although there is far less of the ‘Romantic’ to this score. As with a good deal of serialist opera, one has a sense of the workings of the serial machinery and its implications, even if one could not quite put it into words, and would have to consult the score properly to analyse it. (When, after all, would one not? Surely the same is true of Mozart or Wagner.)

Although I felt that Fabio Luisi sometimes led the excellent Orchestra de l’Opéra national de Paris with a little too much restraint, and that something more full-blooded would have turned the dramatic screws with a more evident sense of theatre and ultimately of musico-dramatic generation, audibility of such procedures and our consequent ability to relate them, indeed to fuse them, with stage action were nevertheless most welcome. Not that screams from the orchestra – seemingly, insofar as I could tell, never having seen the score, executed with pinpoint precision – or stereo dialogue between percussionists in boxes either side of the pit had nothing of the visceral to them, far from it. The score can rarely, if ever, have been played with such clarity and, at times, both depth and brightness of string tone as by this fine orchestra, still woefully underrated by many who should know better. My mind was cast back to their magnificent Moses und Aron at the opening of this season.

The cast was excellent too. Bo Skovhus gave a highly distinguished, dramatically detailed performance of the title role. His initial pride and its disintegration into a complex web of emotions, inadequacies, and ultimately greater humanity were accomplished in what I presume would have been a more physical performance than that adopted by Fischer-Dieskau (or indeed, really possible to the role’s creator at the time). Skovhus was, I am sure, just as committed as his great predecessor would have been. The dryness I have sometimes observed more recently in his voice seemed as resolutely banished as Cordelia, without danger of its parallel return.

Lauri Vasar’s Gloucester was handsomely sung, in a portrayal of considerable emotional depth. Facial, vocal, and verbal expression seemed very much of a piece, as indeed they did in general on stage, testament surely to Bieito’s work as director as well as to individual artistry. Indeed, it is surely testament to both that it is difficult to disentangle the two, and I shall not really attempt to try. Bieito certainly does not seem out to shock, but rather to draw from characters, production, and performances the elements of musical drama. Modern dress is employed, if one cares about that sort of thing in itself, but the designs more broadly are stark, permitting one to allow oneself to imagine any manner of ‘setting’ or none: so more or less what all but the most hidebound reactionary would expect in Shakespearean tragedy. I am not sure that anyone would claim this as a ‘history play’, but perhaps someone silly will claim it as a ‘history opera’; frankly, who cares?

What Goneril and Regan have in common and what, increasingly, sets them apart is fascinatingly explored, Ricarda Merbeth’s Goneril the power-dressing big sister, initially less interested in the sexual, it would seem, but ultimately more successful – perhaps because her actions have not previously been so overtly erotic? – in its exploitation. The depravity of Regan’s actions, by contrast, from the initial sexual approach to her father (one almost wants to have her convicted of elder abuse) to her sleazy demise (a touch of necrophilia before expiring, perhaps, however understated?) tell their own story. Erika Sunnegårdh’s performance again melded the ‘musical’ and the ‘dramatic’ into a single, dynamic whole. If Annette Dasch’s Cordelia made less of a strong impression, that was more a function of the work; when she returned, hers was an undoubtedly sympathetic contrast, if ultimately never one that could emerge victorious. Andreas Schiebner’s Albany was intriguingly ambiguous: here, one felt, was a truly conflicted character, no doubt weak yet still a victim of circumstances. Andreas Conrad’s Edmund followed the seeming fate, even nature, of his own personal circumstances, with similarly powerful command of musico-dramatic theatre. His legitimate half-brother, Edgar, received a memorable performance, especially but not only in vocal terms, from Andrew Watts, switching as he must between tenor and countertenor. Here, again, was a desperately needed hint of sympathy, if also a reminder of hopelessness. There was no sense, however, of whether he might become king; our eyes and ears were focused upon tragedy.

Now I should like to see Bieito direct King Lear ‘itself’ or not quite ‘itself’. Shakespeare stands no more in need of Werktreue than any composer of opera, indeed if anything, less so. The Barbican has staged some of his Shakespeare; alas, I was unable to go, but hope that it will not prove the last opportunity in London. Otherwise, to Paris, to Barcelona, or to wherever else might oblige…



Alexander said...

Some of us – even those who generally share your scepticism about Verdi – do find that both Otello and Falstaff are truly admirable works. But I won't try to convince you.

Surely, in any case, it's as much a non-sequitur to say “It is difficult to care much one way or the other about The Merry Wives of Windsor,” as it would be to say that it was difficult to care about Sardou in a review of Tosca – or indeed, that it was difficult to care about Greene's Pandosto in a review of The Winter's Tale. Very great operas have been based on very slight literary sources; had Mozart set The Merry Wives of Windsor (as, indeed, Salieri actually did), I can't imagine you'd find it difficult to care about it! (Indeed, it could be argued that it's more justifiable to set something like Merry Wives, a minor work likely to grow through musical transformation, that one of Shakespeare's masterpieces, which need no further help).

I caught a performance of Nicolai's Lustigen Weibe in Magdeburg during my recent German / Czech opera trip. I must say, it staged amazingly well. The way the climax of Act 1 escalates dramatically and musically is – dare I say it? I don't say it lightly! – almost Mozartian! And there are also some intriguing moments of homage to the novelties Wagner was then introducing into German composition – here given a distinctive comic inflection. Unfortunately the work suffers more than most from the Singspiel format; in the long stretches of spoken dialogue, one loses any sense of musical progress. Still, I was very glad to have seen it.

Of course there are also a number of nineteenth-century French operatic responses to Shakespeare. I can't imagine you have much interest in Gounod (personally, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed his Roméo et Juliette in Prague last month, though this probably had more to do with a well conducted, well sung, intelligently directed performance than any grand claims I'd make objectively for the music). But you are, I believe, an admirer of Berlioz. What are your thoughts on Béatrice et Bénédict?

Alexander said...

PS - Forgive the error in my German there: "Lustigen Weiber"!

Mark Berry said...

There is some wonderful music in Béatrice et Benedict. It was, I think, the last but one opera I heard Colin Davis conduct, at the Royal Academy ( What Berlioz does here, as more obviously in Roméo et Juliette, is more offer reflections upon Shakespeare rather than set the play as such. I am not quite sure what one would make of it if one didn't know the play beforehand, whereas I am sure Reimann's opera stands pretty much on its own strengths (however unlikely in practice it might be that we shouldn't approach it from the standpoint of the 'original').

As for pieces such as Thomas's 'Hamlet', well, the most interesting thing is how the French pronounce 'Hamlet'...

Alexander said...

I wish I had seen Davis conduct that! It was around the time when I was just beginning to go regularly to the opera; I am glad to have caught his Freischütz in concert at the Barbican in 2012; that must have been one of his very last concerts.

As it happens, the Hamlet of Ambroise Thomas featured in my recent Czech/German opera trip too; I caught a small-scale production in the rather remote town of Ostrava. The work is, I feel, not entirely undistinguished; but quite the best thing in it is the haunting Swedish folk melody, Näckens Polska, which decorates Ophelia's mad scene as, indeed, it also enlivens a couple of other nineteenth-century operas with Scandinavian themes. It would be a crueler man than I who would draw any conclusions from the fact that the best tune in the opera was the one that the composer didn't write!

One incidental pleasure was the fascination of Ostrava itself, where architecturally one gets a strong sense of the troubled layers of Czech history, Hapsburg, interwar, and Communist.